School board members say needed study already done

Published 10:33 am Monday, August 4, 2014

Three members of the Carter County Board of Education said they felt the air needed to be cleared about a proposed middle school project after one board member expressed his concerns with the project to the mayor and members of the County Commission.
Board members Craig Davis and Rusty Barnett, Board Chairman Ronnie McAmis and Director of Schools Kevin Ward sat down Friday with the Star to share their views and address concerns on the project.
McAmis began by addressing remarks made by County Mayor Leon Humphrey and board member Jerry McMahan, both of whom said the school system needed a “comprehensive study” to adopt a long-range plan that deals with problems at all of the county’s school facilities before beginning construction of a new school. McAmis referred to a comprehensive study on the school system’s needs that has already been completed.
“Carter County cannot afford to do a $100 million plan,” he said. Two years ago, McMahan led a study which ultimately discussed school consolidation but McAmis said the county could not afford the price tag that came with the plan.
“He did his comprehensive study,” McAmis said of McMahan. “It is not feasible for Carter County.” McAmis added that the school system has to address needs one at a time as projects can be afforded because a plan to address the needs of all the system’s facilities would put too much of a burden on the taxpayers.
Both McAmis and Ward pointed out the board voted 8-0 to approve the purchase of the property for the proposed school and also voted 8-0 to have Ward approach the County Commission for funding of the construction project. Since that vote earlier this year, McMahan has stated he feels the project is advancing too rapidly and more planning needs to be done before progressing further.
Davis agreed that studies have already been done on the system’s needs and the long-range plans being called for by Humphrey and McMahan would create a financial hardship.
“It is extremely hard to develop a long-range plan when you are not the one that controls revenue,” Davis said.
Davis said he feels the county is being hampered in planning future projects because of debt already incurred by the county and the public’s distaste for capital projects after the county’s jail construction project.
“We’ve got an albatross hanging around our neck and we will be paying for that albatross for some time,” Davis said. “I don’t think our children should be held hostage because of that albatross.”
Both McAmis and Davis said the school system has been accused of “rushing” the project, and both say that is simply not the case.
“If this was a rushed and not well-thought-out project, why was $1 million allocated to the board seven or eight years ago for the purchase of land on Stoney Creek,” Davis asked. “How can we call this a rushed process when it was known seven or eight years ago, and it was approved by the board, and it was approved by the commission, and the money was allocated at that time?”
The allocation Davis referenced was given to the school system by the County Commission to buy land for a new school in the Stoney Creek community. However, suitable land could not be found at that time and the money was ultimately used for improvements at Unaka High School.
Ward said he had been involved in discussions with the county’s budget and education committees over the past several months regarding the proposed middle school project. He said the board approached the county to fund the project this fiscal year because the loan used for construction of the new Cloudland Elementary School was paid off during the 2013-2014 fiscal year.
Barnett said members of the board had hoped once the Cloudland note was paid off the funding set aside to pay that debt could be transferred to cover the cost of the new middle school project. Ward said when he approached the Budget Committee with the idea of using the funding for the Cloudland debt to begin the new project, he was told by the county finance director that money would have to be reallocated for the school project.
In the budget for the 2014-2015 fiscal year, the County Commission allocated funding to the school system to obtain plans and architect’s drawings for the proposed school. Ward said the design and planning phase would take some time but that the school system should be able to present plans to the Budget Committee in February or March of 2015.
Barnett called for members of the board and the county commission to work together on the project.
“I’ve pushed as hard as anyone for this school,” he said. “We’ve got to all get on the same page. We’ve got to have the blessings of the new commissioners and the taxpayers.”

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